Backpacking is no longer the laissez-faire activity of old. Travellers now use the web to book products and communicate on the move, with some even taking their laptop along for the ride. Richard Abbott examines how the travel industry has responded.
Gone are the days of crackly phone calls home and feverish consulting of tatty guide books to locate a £2-a-night hovel.
There is a new generation of backpackers touring the planet, and they are more technology-savvy than ever before.
Today’s backpacker buys a local SIM card for their mobile, uses Internet cafés to get advice from fellow travellers, and searches for lodgings on price-comparison sites. Travel firms are finding it harder than ever to keep pace with this new generation of e-backpackers.
Tom Hall, travel editor of Lonely Planet, says the lines have become blurred when talking about backpackers.
“We used to have a distinct community that defined themselves as backpackers, but nowadays there is no standard ‘gap year’ experience,” he says.
“The connectivity is the big change. It is not unusual to see people travelling with laptops. And people’s expectations have changed. When they arrive somewhere, they expect a fast connection Internet café and a decent mobile signal.”
Tom Griffiths, owner and founder of Gapyear.com, identifies this phenomenon as the ‘flashpacker’ – and says their average spend per trip is £6,000-£9,000.
He refers to a 2005 Mintel Gap Year report, which shows that independent travellers having more than three weeks away spent an average of £5,000 each. The market is forecast to be worth £11 billion globally by 2010.
Griffiths adds: “These are the guys that go through the ‘top 10 things to do before you die’ book. And it’s not just the 20-somethings. You have got the 50-60 year-olds travelling too. They have immediate access to anything. They have access to all the cheap flights and it is very easy for them to get around, so they are covering more distance.”
He says the emergence of price-comparison websites like Travel Supermarket have forced travel firms to adapt or die.
“Everything has turned on its head. The question is, if you can’t compete on price, what is your differentiator? If you don’t have one, you will start fading into the background.”
Peter Ward, director of WAYN.com – a portal for travellers to find friends in their region – says: “The traditional travel industry has been far too transaction focused. It is difficult for it to offer something that is truly different. If the user knows what they want they will try to find it for the cheapest price.”
So how can the online travel industry get noticed by such a transient, value-conscious and web-savvy segment of travellers?
Celia Pronto, marketing director, STA Travel, says the key is to offer something useful.
“Inspiration sources tend to vary,” she says. “The companies that are doing well are those that are thinking about relevance.
“When they (backpackers) are out there, they are not in the frame of mind to absorb your advertising. You have to offer them products – pull, rather than push, your digital marketing. If you can offer a suite of products to make their trip easier, this will make them engage with you while they are on the road.”
Hall agrees: “When they are away they want to make their trip better, smoother and more streamlined, while staying in touch with home. You need to offer something that meets these requirements.”
Social networking sites such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook have become indispensable to many backpackers.
Pronto says social media has become “massively influential” for STA Travel, which has a Facebook community of more than 20,000 people.
The company created a series of applications that can be downloaded into social websites, including a travel countdown clock and a weather comparison tool.
“We tried to understand how people are using Facebook and how we could create something that engages with them. So we developed some widgets,” she says.
Griffiths says social networking sites have become “massive” for this market. “Your customers are telling everyone what they think about you,” he says. “For years companies have been able to hide mediocre product behind their brand. But there is no hiding on the web.”
According to Ward, some travel firms are missing the point when it comes to online marketing.
He says: “By focusing on numbers, they have a short-term view. If companies want to create loyalty, they have to think about how they use social media as a tool to soften the brand and to add a more experiential and engaging element to their offering.”
Hall argues that, while backpackers are happy to search and buy flights and hotels from the cheapest source, they still rely on established, trusted brands when it comes to the biggest purchases.
“As detailed as the information available online is, buying a round-the-world trip is a complex booking process. They need confidence in the company they are booking with,” he says.
“It is great all this data is available online, but backpackers are still reliant on the trust they have built up with existing products and brands.”
He identifies brands such as his own Lonely Planet, along with Rough Guides, STA Travel and Trailfinders as examples of ‘trusted’ brands.
“Because there is a more detailed research process, there is a reliance on trust that goes beyond technology,” he argues.
STA Travel’s Pronto agrees: “Where the brand becomes more important is the mechanics of having a safe booking, knowing that your booking is secure.”
Experts forecast major growth in the ‘soft adventure’ category – which tends to yield better margins for operators that traditional ‘fly and flop’ breaks. Soft adventure is seen as a more structured, safer version of backpacking.
The traditional tour operators have identified the potential of this category. Two examples are the acquisition of group adventure specialist Imaginative Traveller by TUI, and the growth of Thomas Cook’s Neilson brand.
Russell Gould, director of e-commerce at Thomas Cook, explains: “We are trying to package the product we are selling in a much more flexible format. I am more interested in the wannabe backpackers. They still want to do the backpacker-type experience, but not on a budget.”
He is sceptical of price-comparison sites like Travel Supermarket and user review sites, such as Trip Advisor. “The review sites are good and they are having their day, but the trustworthiness of the information is questionable,” he says.
In the future, the mobile phone is likely to become the backpacker’s number one friend. Ward identifies flight alerts to your mobile as a step forward, while Gould sees huge potential in the iPhone.
As technology gets more accessible, the independent traveller has never had so much control and freedom over their trip. It’s up to the travel industry to catch up with them.
With so much media attention on the environmental impact of travelling, the new generation of e-backpackers is under pressure to travel responsibly.
But experts say they are still weighing up the benefits of offsetting their journey against the sizeable cost, especially when budgets are tight.
Gap Year’s Tom Griffiths says: “The e-backpacker is someone who does care about their carbon footprint. But when you offset your travels, you can end up with a whopping bill.”
Tom Hall, travel editor of Lonely Planet, agrees: “Are people going to offset? The jury is out. If I was marketing to backpackers, I would make sure my green credentials were clearly set out. It can be a major turn off if the company doesn’t have the right credentials.”
But Griffiths warns that green marketing is the most difficult to master. “Companies that push environmental issues can alienate people,” he says.